For the past year, since I have lived in Hanoi, I have been sharing a house with three other expats. One is a woman who amazes me with her constant ability to be positive. She never complains or criticizes. When I, or the other housemates, talk badly about someone or bitch about work, she listens but doesn’t really say anything. When she does comment, it is usually to give someone the benefit of the doubt. It really bugged me for a while, at first, and I thought she was just hiding her real feelings. Now, I have to say that I am affected by her and wish I could be less negative and sarcastic. Is it possible? Can people change their personalities? I don’t want to be fake.
— Elizabeth (not real name)
You sound inspired. You are asking a good question about whether people can change. The answer is yes and no. Our personality is generally thought of to be an inner structure that remains constant over the course of one’s life. However, there are many aspects of who we are that are not fixed and are a matter of choice — things we can learn or unlearn, attitudes and outlooks we can modify. Our mood is also a significant part of what influences our behaviour and our thoughts.
Your housemate is someone who seems to hold the trait of resilience. It is an ability to see the difficult aspects of life, without being caught by the negative feelings or perspectives. It starts with an acceptance that life is difficult or painful, and the choice to see “beyond” that truth.
William James, one of my favourite early psychologists, said: “The art of wisdom is the art of knowing what to overlook.” We do have selective choice about where we put our attention and focus. Most of us get caught in our pain, disappointments and expectations and find ourselves with a negative outlook from time to time, or maybe a lot.
Your awareness has been raised and you are seeing yourself differently. Changing can feel strange at first, like we are not being “ourselves”. But over time we morph in the direction of our intention. Catching yourself at being sarcastic or overly critical, creates space for something different.
Trying to give people the benefit of the doubt or putting yourself in their shoes shifts the way we see things and results in change. When you think about it, change is inevitable. We grow up, we mature, we learn from our mistakes, we develop perspectives from the experience of life. So, doing that consciously is what I think you are talking about.
One aspect of those who tend to a positive outlook on life is their ability to hold gratitude. When we consciously are able to see the ways that life is good, not to the exclusion of painful reality, we can keep things in perspective. Every day it is possible to see beauty, to experience pleasure and joy, to feel love and connection, and to value the small ways that life offers gifts to us.
Sometimes we have to overcome a deep belief that we do not deserve happiness or the desirable aspects of life. Deep down we have come to believe that we are not worth it, we are not lovable, we are not “good” enough. It can be a major obstacle to the resilience I am talking about.
It is a core belief that needs to be challenged and was probably learned from an early age. It can cause us to sabotage our own growth and steal away the positive aspects of life. Ask yourself a deep question: Do I feel like I don’t deserve to have a life that includes joy, gratitude and contentment? This is where therapy can be really helpful, to understand where the belief has come from and to strip away the inhibiting power of that false belief.
I wish you continued inspiration,